Australian Outback Cattle King

These mature and senior programs for couples and senior travellers explore the outback Sidney Kidman sought to tame in the Channel country to the Birdsville track, Marree and Farina. Our escorted small group tours of the Australian interior explore history, cultures and landscapes that we experience as we travel from the previous time to the contemporary.

11 Dec 20 · 8 mins read

Australian Outback Cattle King: Sir Sidney Kidman

By Marco Stojanovik

From a humble background as a stockman, Sir Sidney “The Cattle King” Kidman (1857-1935) would go onto build an outback cattle station empire covering 3 per cent of the Australian continent. With the aid of his phenomenal memory and his intensive knowledge of the geography of the bush, plus a small army of dedicated men, by the time he retired in 1927, he owned, controlled, or had a financial interest in more pastoral land than anyone else in modern history. His success lay in his strategic use of the land, moving his cattle from north to south along the great inland river systems and drought-proofing his empire. A legend in his own life time, he was the most well-known Australian internationally and well-respected for his success and generosity, leaving behind a rich legacy.

Early Life

Sidney Kidman was born on May 9, 1857, near Athelstone, South Australia, the fifth son of George and Elizabeth Mary Kidman. Educated at private schools in suburban Norwood, at age 13 he ran away from home with only five shillings in his pocket and a one-eyed horse named Cyclops he had bought with laboriously acquired savings. Initially finding work at Kapunda and later Burra, he eventually moved to join his older brother George who was working in the Barrier Range in western New South Wales (now Broken Hill).

Here he was given a job with George Raines, a landless bushman who squatted on the unfenced runs with his cattle wherever he found good feed. During this time, he shared a dug-out in the bank of a dry creek with an Aboriginal known among whites as Billy. Treating billy seriously as a friend and equal, Kidman earned his trust, learning much from him about tracking and other bush skills, and so was able to become a better bushman than most white adults.

Kidman later found a job at Mount Gipps station in the area as a stockhand for 10 shillings a week after Raines was forced to move on. He worked here for a year to two but when he asked for a raise in pay he was sacked. He would later claim that this was the best thing to ever happen to him as it forced him to become an independent operator never working for another boss again.

Early Enterprise

Having saved enough money Kidman set out to establish his own businesses. First, he bought a bullock team, setting himself up as a carrier before soon also employing others. Then, following the discovery of copper at Cobar in the early 1870s, he used his knowledge of droving and transport to establish a butcher’s shop and sell meat to the miners. Seeing that money could also be made from transport, he acquired drays to cart provisions (flour, tea, sugar, jam and soap) to the miners, as well as cart copper ore to the river ports of Wilcannia and Bourke. Profits flowed with spectacular success and he was able to establish himself as a large squatter.

Kidman was able to further diversify his commercial interests with £400 he inherited from his grandfather’s estate in 1878, which he invested successfully in other forms of transport and stock trading. He established coaching businesses in New South Wales and Western Australia and began providing the British army in India with horses.

When Kidman was in his mid-twenties, he acquired a one-fourteenth share in the Broken Hill Mining Company for 60 pounds, selling it soon after in 1884 at a profit of 40 pounds. Originally satisfied with the profit, he would later come to regret this for the rest of his life; had he hold onto it, his profit would have extended into many millions of pounds.

That same year, Kidman entered into a partnership, making profitable sales of cattle to his brother Sackville who ran a large butchering business in Broken Hill to accommodate miners. This partnership extended into coaching in the late 1880s to large success with the Kidman brothers’ coaching business becoming second only to that of Cobb and Co. The coaches ran throughout New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia, and also in Western Australia in the 1890s when another gold rush broke out.

Broken Hill
Dawn in the mining town of Broken Hill in the Australian outback

Strategic Buying of Stations

All Kidman’s early activities were a means to an end. During the major business recession of the 1890s when many pastoral land holders were forced to give up their land, the Kidman brothers were in a sound financial position to buy up suitable large tracts of land on which they had their eyes for some time.

In 1895 the Kidmans bought their first major station, Cowarie, in South Australia. A year later they bought Owen Springs Station on the Hugh River, south-west of Alice Springs; and within a few years they added Alton Downs, Annandale, Caryapundy, Clayton, Haddon Downs, Mount Nor’West, Pandi Pandi, Roseberth and Tickalara Station.

These purchases were not without purpose. Long before, Kidman had conceived the idea of buying a chain of stations from the Gulf of Carpentaria through western Queensland to Broken Hill and then into South Australia within easy droving distance of Adelaide. Kidman realised that these semi-arid lands of remote country could still be worked profitably by incorporating the rivers that rolled down from the north.

The stations on this chain would be watered by Cooper Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers, which contained many good, permanent water holes, and sometimes brought northern tropical rain-waters to the centre even during droughts. They were especially valuable though after monsoon rains when they burst their banks in south-western Queensland and provided untold miles of flood plain country which quickly responded with good fattening pasture for stock.

The winding Cooper Creek Innamincka, South Australia

Kidman later established a second chain of stations following the Overland Telegraph route from the Fitzroy River in Western Australia and Victoria Downs in the Northern Territory to the Flinders Ranges. The aim was to make the two chains drought-resistant by keeping stock on the move to more favourable locations where good feed prevailed, staging them continually towards markets where prices were the highest to sell in top condition.

When Sackville Kidman died in 1899, Sidney took on running everything, continuing to buy up more solidly than ever. Although hurt badly during the severe drought of 1900-1903 losing more than 70,000 head of cattle and having to close several stations, he still managed to buy more stations backed by the faith of the Bank of New South Wales. With the help of his detailed knowledge of the country, his energy and bushcraft, he withstood the drought, making enough profits to embark on another buying spree in 1903.

He then continued to acquire stations and by 1908 was acknowledged as the biggest pastoral landholder in the world. By the time of World War I, he controlled station country considerably greater in area than England and nearly as great as Victoria.

Generosity & Controversy

From 1900 Kidman began his annual horse sales at Kapunda, South Australia. The event became a fixture for the next thirty years, often going on for a fortnight, said to be the biggest held in the world, and selling as many as 2,000 horses from his stations each year. Kidman charged admission to these world-famous sales and donated the proceeds to local charities.

He also gave generously during the First World War, donating fighter aeroplanes, ambulances, shipments of beef and wool, and horses to be used in the Middle east in the war effort. He promised his employees a job on their return and provided for the widows of those who did not. He also gave substantial donations to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was knighted in the 1921 Birthday Honour for these war-time efforts.

Despite his philanthropy and gifts to the nation, Kidman was successful prosecuted by the Federal Government between 1924 and 1927 for unpaid land tax having to pay £25,132 in settlement of his debts.

Australian stockman riding horse with cattle in a drought-affected landscape

Sidney Kidman’s Legacy

By the end of the First World War, Kidman had begun diversifying his business to be involved in ship and road building and railway and reservoir construction. He also continued to buy up land until his retirement in 1927, holding around 280,000 square kilometres – more land than the total area of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This covered a total area of more than 3% of Australia across four states and the Northern Territory, consisting of more than 100 separate stations stocked with about 176,000 cattle and 215,000 sheep.

According to historian Russel Ward, by his retirement his name had come to signify “a complex of interlocking companies, partnerships and agencies with branches in all the mainland capital cities and some country towns”.

When he died on September 1, 1935, at the age of 78, he was the best known Australian internationally, his death bringing wide coverage throughout the world. Still, today S. Kidman & Co remains the largest private landholder in Australia, although now on a much smaller scale.

Tour of the Channel Country

Odyssey Traveller visits the Channel Country – heartland of the Kidman’s pastoral empire – and key towns such as Birdsville, Winton, Windorah, Longreach and Mount Isa as part of our various small group tours into Queensland.

  • On our tour of Broken Hill and the outback we begin and end in the ‘Silver City’ of Broken Hill, New South Wales. Our outback experience explores the mining history and artistic legacy of the capital of the outback, taking in the works of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and visiting the moving Lode Miners Memorial and elegant Broken Hill Leaving Broken Hill, we head towards Channel Country at Birdsville, stopping off at the opal mining town of White Cliff and Menindee Lake National Park on the way. From Birdsville we head south to Marree on the legendary Birdsville Trail, before visiting the flora and fauna sanctuary of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, on the northern edge of the Flinders Range. Leaving the Flinders, we head back to outback NSW, passing through the ‘corner country’, possibly the most remote area in Australia.
  • On our tour of Outback Queensland we by-pass the tourist spots of your average Queensland tour– Brisbane, Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest – to take you deep into the outback. Our tour begins in Dubbo, NSW, before heading deep into Queensland’s outback, where we visit the Australian Stockman’s Hall in Longreach, see dinosaur remains on a day tour from Hughenden, and learn about the birth of the Australian labour movement at Barcaldine. Rather than head north to Mount Isa and Cape York, our tour turns south, heading back through Canarvon Gorge National Park, a lush rainforest gorge in the midst of the arid Australian outback, home to extraordinary Aboriginal art. Our Outback Queensland Road Trip then visits the opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge, NSW, before ending in Dubbo.
  • Our tours of Queensland, with 11 days and 19 days options, discover the big skies, stunning pastoral and desert landscapes, and fascinating history of the outback communities of western Queensland with a tour guide. On our 11-day tour, we visit Roma, Clareville, Windorah, and go as far North as Longreach, before heading back south0east via Barcaldine and Carnarvon National Park. Our 19-day tour goes further into Channel Country with additional visits to Birdsville, Mount Isa, Cloncurry, and Winton before reaching Longreach.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

You can read all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Channel Country & Outback Queensland

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